Powerful audio performance with fine-tunable EQ (in app). Solid noise cancellation with adjustable parameters (in app). Comfortable.
Expensive. Noise cancellation has subtle effect on audio.
- Bottom Line
The wireless, noise cancelling Sony WH-1000XM2 delivers strong audio performance that can be sculpted to taste using the free app.
Suddenly, there's no shortage of noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones on the market. The latest entry to the category has one of the best accompanying apps we've seen, and is exceptionally comfortable, but is the Sony WH-1000XM2 a legitimate competitor to the nearly identically priced Bose QuietComfort 35 II? In terms of noise cancellation alone, no. But in terms of noise cancellation control (via an app), audio performance, and user adjustable EQ (also in the app), Sony has put together a winner that is very much worth comparing to the industry-king Bose QC35 II. If audio performance—and the ability to adjust it and noise cancellation parameters—is a top priority, you'll appreciate the Sony WH-1000XM2. Its Sony Headphones Connect app is as well design as the app for Bose headphones, but offers more user-adjustable controls.
Available in gold or black models, the WH-1000XM2's circumaural (over the ear) design features memory foam earpads that block out plenty of ambient noise before the noise cancellation circuitry is even engaged. Sony made sure the headphones are comfortable over long listening periods, and the audio performance is also impressive—delivered by a 1.6-inch driver in each earcup.
The unmakred outer panels of each earcup have a leather patina and offer more than meets the eye. The left earcups's outer panel acts as an NFC pairing zone, while its outer rim houses the Power button, as well as the Noise Cancellation button. There's also a 3.5mm connection for the included audio cable. The right earcup's outer panel houses capacitive touch controls that have no markings at all. Tapping in the center of the panel controls playback, call management, and accesses Siri or voice controls. Swiping to the front or back of the panel controls skipping forward or backward a track, and swipping the top or bottom of the panel adjusts volume up or down.
The headphones can also be used passively, or with a cable and the noise cancellation circuitry engaged—the included audio cable lacks a remote or mic, however, so it can't be used to field calls or control audio levels. Audio is a little bit less loud through the cable than the Bluetooth connection, in both passive or active modes. Other than the audio cable and charging cable, the WH-1000XM2 ships with an airplane jack adapter and a hard shell zip-up case that the headphones fold down flat into.
The WH-1000XM2's built-in mic offers average intelligibility—using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we could understand every word we recorded, but there was a sense of distance from the mic, and thus a decent amount of room noise and some artifacts that are typical of built-in mics on Bluetooth headphones.
A word about the free Sony Headphones Connect app: We've been a little critical of Sony apps that are supposedly there to help you enjoy your wireless audio device in the past because, too often, their designs were confusing or glitchy. But this app keeps getting more interesting each time I use it—if it's guilty of anything, it's certainly not a poor design, as it looks clean and navigates easily. True, it's loaded with features that are only mildly helpful (sound position control, which convincingly shifts audio to the front left, front right, rear left or rear right depending on what part of the graph you select) and some pitiful sounding effects (almost none of the Surround VPT effects like Concert Hall or Club sound like anything other than a thick coat of awful on whatever track you're playing). But the user adjustable EQ is easy to customize and save presets for, and trying out the noise cancelling optimizer certainly can't hurt. We'll disucss how it can be used to adjust the noise cancellation performance in the next section. In other words, there are plenty of extra features, you'll probably only ever use a few of them, but the app is now a well-oiled machine with uncluttered menus and straightforward graphics that give the user more control of the listening experience.
The app also features an upgrade for the Sony WH-1000XM2 that allows it to adapt to atmospheric pressure when you're flying. Regretfully, our tests didn't involve any flights this time around, but it's an interesting feature we haven't heard any other companies include—whether it works or not is not something we can't vouch for in this review.
Sony estimates the WH-1000XM2's battery life to be between 30-40 hours, but your results will vary greatly (and veer far closer to the 30 hours end of that estimate) with your volume levels and your mix of noise cancellation, wireless, and wired usage.
Noise Cancelling Performance
The app offers a variety of noise cancellation modes for when you're lounging around, running, walking, or on a bus or train, and for each, you can control how much noise cancellation is applied—all within the app. You can also choose in each mode to activate the "focus on voice" feature. Like most active noise cancellation circuitry not made by the industry-leading Bose, the WH-1000XM2's noise cancellation tends to emit a faint high frequency hiss—it's not unpleasant, more like tape hiss, and you'll never hear it when you have audio playing at a moderate volume. It's there nonetheless, but we'll give a huge thumbs up to the "focus on voice" feature. Depending on how you use the fader, it's a very effective way to bring nearby voices (or your own) in and out of the noise cancellation/ambient sound mix. All in all, this is some of the better noise cancellation currently on the market. If what you're after is the best, the Bose QuietComfort series still owns that title, but if you're more interested in very good noise cancellation on a wireless headphone pair with great audio performance that can be customized and adjusted in detail, the app's EQ and noise cancellation sections will not disappoint.
You can also simply turn the noise cancellation on or off manually by pressing the button on the left earcup, and pressing it again will put the headphones in ambient sound mode, during which you can use a fader tool in the app to determine just how much you hear of your surroundings.
The noise cancellation can have a minor effect at times on the audio performance. However, it's worth noting that this is now a common side effect of many wireless noise cancelling headphone pairs, and that the difference in audio performance when noise cancellation is on or off here is quite subtle. Consider it us splitting hairs—we've heard far worse, and really we're talking about a minor difference in bass response between the two modes—nothing that couldn't be adjusted in the app and fixed. So no, it's not a big deal like it is on some competing models.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like the Knife's "Silent Shout," and with all EQ/effects disabled, the WH-1000XM2 delivers exceptionally powerful bass that won't disappoint those looking for some extra depth. At top, quite loud volumes, the drivers don't distort, and at moderate volumes, the bass response is still notably strong. And of course, you can dial it back or really pour it on in the app.
Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track that lacks much in the way of deep bass, gives us a better sense of the WH-1000XM2's overall sound signature. The drums on this track sound full and round through the WH-1000XM2. Things aren't exactly thunderous (which is good, considering the drums shouldn't really sound that powerful), but you can certainly push them to that point with the app. Callahan's baritone vocals get a rich low-mid presence that's nicely complimented by crisp high-mids that also bring out the strumming of the guitar and the higher register percussive hits. We've heard brighter, crisper deliveries of this track that still packed solid bass response—the WH-1000XM2 can sometimes sound a little dulled in the high-mids. This is a sculpted sound with a bass-forward lean, but again, it can be tweaked to extreme brightness, so this is really only a critique of the starting point.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loop gets enough high-mid presence to keep its attack sharp and slicing through layers of the beat, though we wouldn't mind a little more high-mid presence both here and on the previous track. Instead, there's a strong bass response that beefs up the drum loop and pushes the sub-bass synth hits forward, and the highs are also sculpted a bit—while the vocals could use just a smidge more high-mid edge, we hear plenty of the vinyl crackle typically relegated to the background. Generally speaking, there's a solid balance here, and once again, it can be adjusted easily to taste.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound phenomenal through the WH-1000XM2. The lower register instrumentation gets just enough push forward in the mix to add some depth and vibrancy, but the stage still belongs to the bright presence of the higher register brass, strings, and vocals. It's perhaps not a sound signature that will appeal directly to audiophiles seeking flat response, but it can be adjusted to something more flat, and as is, it delivers a full, rich, crisp orchestral presence.
The WH-1000XM2 sounds great and can be tweaked in the EQ department according to taste. It's easy to operate, and the app gives you extra levels of control over the high quality noise cancellation circuitry. The Bose QuietComfort 35 II is still king of the mountain in the wireless noise cancelling headphone realm, but the Sony WH-1000XM2 gives it a run for its money, and arguably sounds better while, inarguably, offering more detailed EQ and sound adjustments in the app. Given that it and the WH-1000XM2 are basically identically priced, which pair best suits you will be a feature-based decision and not one based on dollars. However, if you're hoping to spend less, the AKG N60 NC Wireless and Libratone Q Adapt On-Ear both are solid options that offer varying degrees of noise cancellation, while the Bose QuietComfort 35 still sounds great, and is cheaper than its recent, aforementioned updated model.
Other Sony Headphones
By Tim Gideon Contributing Editor, Audio
Contributing Editor Tim Gideon has been writing for PCMag since 2006. He specializes in reviewing audio products, and is obsessed with headphones, speakers, and recording gear. More »
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